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October 30, 2013

Can improv make women better negotiators?

  • Business skills coach Karen Hough says using the improv concept of “yes and” can keep people talking even when things get tense.
    Journal Staff Reporter

    Negotiation skills can be acquired, but many women are outright naturals. They just don't know it.

    That's one of the discoveries Karen Hough has made in her research about how people communicate as the founder and CEO of ImprovEdge, a business-skills coaching firm based in Columbus, Ohio.

    Hough was recently in the Seattle area to teach women how they can hone their negotiation chops.

    A good negotiator can end up earning much more over the course of her career than someone who doesn't try.


    A 2010 study by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, drew on U.S. Census Bureau figures to conclude that the typical woman working full time loses $431,000 in pay over a 40-year career compared with what a typical male makes. The wage gap is even higher in Washington state: $524,000 over 40 years.

    An article on a job website called CareerBuilder suggests that one reason for the gap is that women don't ask for more money as frequently as men do.

    Hough developed her own negotiation techniques in an unusual way: improv. She trained with Chicago's Second City comedy troupe, which counts among its alumni Tina Fey, Gilda Radner, Catherine O'Hara, Bill Murray and Stephen Colbert.

    She has a new book coming out in 2014 called “Be the Best Bad Presenter Ever! Break the Rules, Make Mistakes and Win Them Over.”

    Hough recently talked with the DJC about her background and offered a few negotiation pointers. The conversation has been condensed and edited for length.

    How did you leap from improv to business?

    It was a really unusual kind of path. I learned to do improv at Yale as an undergrad. I went on to be a professional improviser and trained with Second City. I did film and TV, and tons and tons of improv and theater. So I loved it, and I think when you start at such an early age it really kind of becomes part of your DNA.

    After I'd done that for quite a while, I moved to New York with my husband and I needed a new challenge for my brain. And I kind of stumbled into network engineering. I went totally into IT technology. I didn't have any background in it whatsoever, and I certainly was cramming every night, but I also was improvising during the day. And it allowed me to be really successful, probably far more than I should have been.

    You had a chance to test the link between improv and business with a friend at Wharton business school. What did you find?

    We felt anecdotally that the things we understood from improv allowed us to be more high-performing in our corporate work world. And so we started engaging in workshops that allowed corporate people to understand what the principles were that they followed. And then we started looking at: What is the psychology behind this? What's the neuroscience behind this? Is it real, or is it just us thinking that it works?

    And we found amazing tiebacks, especially to neuroscience and psychology. So it allowed me to build a company that uses improv as a catalyst for learning in corporate training.

    Has negotiating always been one of your strengths?

    Oh no, it was definitely not a strength. It's definitely something I've had to develop. It's been an area of study for me, and that has certainly helped me be a much better negotiator.

    Do you see gender differences in how people negotiate?

    What we're finding is that women overall — for all sorts of societal reasons — don't really approach the table as readily or as capably or as often as men do. The number one difference is typically women don't negotiate; they just take whatever they're offered.

    What are a few classic female negotiation pitfalls?

    The first one is women don't negotiate. It's a little bit like “price tag” syndrome: We look at a price and say, “that's it,” and that's what we have to pay. But a lot of people feel that even if something's on a price tag, it's still negotiable. Because we tend not to enter that conversation, it can really add up over the course of our lifetimes, especially in salary.

    (Another pitfall is) that we tend to undervalue ourselves. So we don't do as much research as we should, or we believe that we aren't worth a higher salary.

    Any others to watch out for?

    Sometimes women negotiate against ourselves. It's that sense of undervaluing so we're like, “Well, gosh, I better go in with a 10 percent discount right off the top or they won't talk to me.” Which isn't true at all.

    Is it different when women negotiate with other women?

    I don't have actual statistics but I can tell you anecdotally what I see. When I get to just negotiate with women, we like to get the deal done, and we're actually also quite transparent about what the budget is, what we can do, what we can't do, and want to kind of get it done.

    Sometimes in large organizations, where there's a big negotiation team and many vendors, they have to be very careful. They have to keep things close to the vest.

    Does age make a difference?

    No, actually. I run into much older women who have just as much struggle as younger (women), and younger women who are really competent and do a great job.

    What strengths do women have as negotiators?

    Statistically, we are really good at asking questions. And we're not afraid to get information, and that's incredibly critical in understanding what's going on — what you can and can't negotiate for, and what the other side is thinking.

    Another advantage is we are very intuitive and can read body language incredibly well, and that can be very telling in any kind of negotiation.

    I actually ran into a negotiation team of nine people and there was one woman on it, and they were so trusting of her intuition that her job was just to sit and watch the negotiation unfold.

    What advice do you have for women?

    To be better, I think, (means) getting over some of our fear.

    What's one improv skill that helps?

    (There is an) improv concept called “yes and” where you have to agree, and then you have to add to it. So in negotiation, even when you hear something you don't want to agree to, if you follow the concept of “yes and” you still create a collaborative environment.

    So you could say, “Yes, and I want to understand more about why do you want to do this in six months,” rather than say, “No, that's not possible, we can't do it in six months.”

    See the difference? You'll gain some knowledge, you kept the negotiation positive and collaborative, and you can work your way toward a solution.

    Any advice for Congress? They can't agree on anything.

    Everybody has commented to me about that.

    The basis of improvisation — when you go do that improvising-type stuff on stage without a script and make it all happen — it's because we agreed to work together. Nobody gets to bail out, and everybody has to stay in it. We can't just say, “That'll never work, we're going to stop the show now halfway through.”

    I know that sounds simplistic, but that's part of the frustration we're all feeling as a country.


    Jon Silver can be reached by email or by phone at (206) 622-8272.

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